Missiology has a love/hate relationship with the social sciences. It’s an important relationship, but when and how missiology should draw on the social sciences is debated. Years ago, Paul Hiebert likened the relationship between anthropologists and missionaries to “that of half-siblings—drawing on one another and frequently quarreling.”
I am presently doing some further academic study in anthropology through a large state university (non-U.S.). A reading assignment for my current course rehearses some of the basic concepts of anthropology. One of those concepts is cultural relativism, which the course book defines as “the evaluation of aspects of culture in terms of the standards and values of the society that practice them, rather than in terms of the standards and values of the researcher.”
At first glance this likely raises some red flags for evangelical Christians who take the Bible seriously, and understandably so. However, there is something helpful for us to learn here.
The book explains further: “While a cultural relativistic approach does not ask you to suspend all judgment and say that ‘anything goes,’ it does require that you withhold judgment until that practice is understood within its particular cultural context, that you should be able to explain and discuss it in those terms, and that you approach all societies with an attitude of respect.”
Practically speaking, what does this mean and how does it help? I’ll use a familiar example to illustrate. In the country where I live, and in this part of the world (Central Asia, Middle East), honor killings occur with varying frequency, depending on the country. A typical example is a teenage or university age girl who is found to be spending time with a male friend. The relationship could be as simple as exchanging text messages or as involved as sneaking out to private locations together.
So what does the family do? In the most extreme scenarios, they choose a male member of the family (father, brother, uncle, cousin) to kill the girl. The first reaction from many Westerners is simply outrage. How extreme! How inhumane! How barbaric!
I agree that this is wrong and extreme. But outraged reaction, without understanding the motivating factors, will not help. This is where we can learn from our anthropologist friends. We need to be able to understand this behavior within its cultural context and explain and discuss it in those terms. Again, this does not mean that “anything goes” and ultimately no critique can be offered or no change advocated for.
So what does motivate such extreme behavior? In many of the cultures of Central Asia, the Middle East, the Far East, etc., this girl’s behavior is considered highly “shameful.” Since honor is a high value, perhaps even the highest, the family must do something to remove the shame brought on by the girl’s behavior, particularly if it has become public knowledge. (Of course, the boy’s behavior is not shameful because males are “supposed to behave that way.”)
In the eyes of the family, the killing of the girl may be the only way to restore the family’s honor, and the honor simply must be restored.
So if, in the end, Scripture calls us to firmly reject and denounce such a practice as honor killings, what difference does it make whether we really understand the motivations behind it or not? I’ll simply list a few reasons without extensive commentary.
1. Failing to understand the motivations in this case will often result in a condescending dismissal, however subconscious, of “those people” as barbarians. And we subtly begin to think, however subconsciously, that we are better than they are and that perhaps they are beyond the reach of the gospel.
2. Attempting to correct behavior without addressing the root causes will either be ineffective or at best result in grudging compliance induced by external force or an externally generated sense of shame, which was the motivating factor in the honor killing anyway.
3. Understanding the motivating factors helps identify a number of other issues that need to be addressed, and can also provide numerous inroads for the gospel conversation. (We have all brought shame on ourselves and others because we are all sinners. God covers our shame in the gospel. The image of God in humans means we must be extremely cautious about taking life. Etc., etc.)
So, because of common grace, even “secular” anthropologists can teach us. But this does not mean we approach anthropology with an uncritical eye, an issue I plan to address later.